Bridge-Guard in the Karroo

(Notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

The Times, June 5, 1901; also published separately in 1901; Literature, June 8, 1901. Reprinted in Songs for Youth from the Collected Verse by Rudyard Kipling, 1924.  Collected in The Five Nations, I.V. 1919, D.V, 1940 and in the Sussex Edition vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26.

Youtube has a little film of this.


Starting in the middle years of the 19th century, a railway track had been extended northwards from Worcester in the Cape Colony. During the Anglo-Boer War, the British relied on the tendrils of this railway system for moving troops and supplies and ferrying the injured back to the coast. Boer guerrillas, operating in groups known as commandoes, naturally targeted the bridges, in order to cause the maximum disruption and hoped to absorb British resources in repair.

Kipling’s own sense of coherence and connectedness had recently come under attack in 1899, during his severe illness followed by the loss of his child: it may be that underlying personal experience that gives rise to this intensely lyrical vision of loneliness in a darkened world.

Notes on the Text

(by Mary Hamer drawing on various sources, in particular
Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)

[Title] The Karroo is a name, of Khoisan origin, given to two semi-desert plateau areas of South Africa, the Great Karroo which is extremely extensive, and the Little or Klein Karroo. The Little Karroo, made fertile by modern farming methods, appears to be pinpointed here, see note to Stanza 1.

[Epigraph] This note challenges the reader to reflect and to remember their geography, for Blood River, which is named here, is nowhere near the Little Karroo in Cape Colony where the poem is so deliberately set. But Blood River was famous on its own account and bore a value that was symbolic for the Boers.

On 16 December 1838 a force of 470 Boers, supported by 200 black servants, defeated a vastly greater Zulu army at the Ncome river. (Some estimates of the Zulu force put its numbers as high as 10,000, though this has been disputed.) The Boers commemorated the engagement as the Battle of Blood River, in view of the massacre they had inflicted; in fulfilment of a vow made to God beforehand, they celebrated the date of the battle ever afterward as a Sabbath. It is still a public holiday in South Africa.

What purpose was served by reminding readers of this history before they began to read the poem? At a blow, we are referred to a world where the Boers were victors, believing that they had God on their side, one where they defeated a force that was numerically superior. Uneasy reflections in 1901, which appear to challenge any facile assumption that the numerically superior British were bound to win or that they were in the right.

The epigraph was probably the last to be written. It opens a perspective that is as far from jingoistic as could be, the result, perhaps, of entering so profoundly in imagination into the African landscape. It is one of the most successful poems in The Five Nations.

[Stanza 1] Sudden the desert changes: the abrupt shift in the light which signals nightfall in the tropics.

Oudsthoorn ranges: not a term in use to describe any range of mountains today. Mountains do surround the town of Oudsthoorn, which is situated in the Little or Klein Karoo and it is presumably one of these ranges to which the poem refers. Oudsthoorn stands between the southern Outeniqua and Langeberg ranges of mountains to the south that separate the Karoo from the coastal plain.

To the north is the Groot Swartberg (the Great Black Mountains) range.

According to Kipling, however: ‘the Ooudsthoorn Ranges are an inconspicuous chain of mountains … from 3,000 to 5,000 feet high. They protect a valley that is the very California of South Africa…’ In the same letter, he reported that one reader had bemused him by admitting that she had thought the Oudsthoorn ranges were ‘some variety of jackal’. See letter to Edward Lucas White, 11 November 1902, (Letters, Vol 3, Ed. Pinney).

[Stanza 2] beryl: pale green, like the semi-precious stone.

wine-dark: this Homeric epithet quietly links the guard in the poem with the heroes of epic, in spite of their distance from the fighting, which soldiers found intensely frustrating.

[Stanza 4] picket: group of men sent to protect a specific site.

[Stanza 5] Details: men ‘detailed’ that is appointed to the task.

[Stanza 6] ganger: a foreman in charge of workers

[Stanza 8] Hottentot: ‘stutterers’ … the name given by early Dutch settlers to the Khoisan people, inhabitants of South Africa, on account of the clicking sounds used in their language.

This is one of the exceedingly rare occasions on which Kipling acknowledges the presence of black Africans. Their absence from his South African writings suggests that to include them would have led to a catastrophic disruption of his vision. If he had engaged imaginatively with the lives of the black population he would have been forced to question what the white population was doing. This he could not afford to do.


©Mary Hamer 2008 All rights reserved